Man survives at -30C thanks to peanut butter

Tyson Steele: His hut could only be reached by helicopter or a plane landing on ice. © Alaska State Troopers

Is survival chiefly about luck or courage? A man whose hut in the Alaskan wilderness burnt down, destroying all his possessions, has just been rescued after three weeks in the freezing snow.

It was the middle of the night when Tyson Steele woke to find burning drops of melted plastic dripping from the ceiling of his hut in the wilds of Alaska. The fire, caused by a spark from the stove, spread with unimaginable speed.

Grabbing whatever he could, Steele ran outside, shouting for his dog to follow him. But Phil, his Labrador, was trapped. The heartbroken Steele was left alone – without any way of contacting the outside world – and neither snow shoes nor map to help him reach civilisation.

For two days, he lived in a snow cave. Then he set about building himself a shelter around the stove from bits of wood and tarpaulin. In the ruins of his store room, he found enough food (including jars of beans and peanut butter) to keep him going for a month. The stove provided just enough warmth to stop him from freezing.

“I stamped a big ‘SOS’ in the snow and I used some ashes from the fireplace to make it black,” he says. “I had to keep doing that because it would snow and I would have to redo it. I figured that would be my best signal.” Finally, last week, it was spotted by Alaskan state troopers flying overhead.

To come through a life-threatening situation demands huge mental resources. Seventeen-year-old Juliane Koepcke was flying home for Christmas in 1971 when a lightning bolt caused an explosion on her plane above the Peruvian rainforest. Incredibly, despite falling two miles to the ground, Juliane survived, still strapped to her seat.

Though she had suffered a broken collarbone, and lost both her shoes and spectacles, Juliane set out to look for help. She knew that her best chance would be to follow a stream, since jungle settlements are usually built on rivers. After ten days, during which she had lived off a small bag of sweets, she met a group of fishermen who took her to safety.

In the book Touching the Void, mountaineer Joe Simpson tells of falling 150 feet into a crevasse in the Andes. Despite a broken leg, Simpson managed to find a small exit, and drag himself five miles back to base camp. It took him three days.

Is survival chiefly about luck or courage?

Against the odds

Some say that Tyson Steele owes his life to luck. He was lucky that enough food survived the fire to keep him from starvation, and enough materials to make a shelter. He was lucky, too, that his rescuers found him: if the weather had been worse, their helicopter might not have been able to take off. Juliane Koepcke and Joe Simpson were also lucky to find their way to people who could help them.

Others argue that none of the three would have survived without the courage that kept them going. Demoralised by the loss of his dog, and the knowledge that he was trapped by the surrounding snow, Steele could easily have given up and frozen to death. Julian Koepcke and Joe Simpson both found themselves in desperate situations with painful injuries – but forced themselves to find a way out.

You Decide

  1. Would it be harder to survive in the Alaskan wilderness or the Sahara Desert?
  2. Is luck or courage more important for survival?

Activities

  1. Imagine that the roof of your classroom has blown off and you have to make a shelter using only what is inside it. Make a list of the things you use, and draw a picture showing how you would arrange them.
  2. Imagine that you are Tyson Steele on the third day after the fire. Write a one-page diary entry describing what you have done and how you are feeling.

Some People Say...

“The secret of survival is a defective imagination.”

John Banville, Irish writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Tyson Steele’s hut burnt down accidentally. He had no way of contacting or reaching the outside world. The temperature fell to -30C. He spent two days in a snow cave, then built himself a makeshift shelter. He found enough food to live on for a month. He was rescued after three weeks. Juliane Koepcke survived a plane crash in the Peruvian jungle when she was 17. Joe Simpson is a mountaineer who survived a 150-foot fall into a crevasse in the Andes.
What do we not know?
Why Steele’s dog could not escape from the hut. How much longer Steele would have survived if the state troopers had not rescued him when they did. The exact set of circumstances that allowed Juliane Koepcke to survive a two-mile fall from an aeroplane. Whether anyone would have found Joe Simpson if he had not managed to escape from the crevasse.

Word Watch

Alaska
The most north-westerly state in the USA, and also the largest. Measuring over 650,000 square miles, it is more than twice the size of the next biggest, Texas.
Snow shoes
A piece of footwear similar to a tennis racquet, which you strap on under a boot, so that your weight is spread over a larger area and you are less likely to sink into the snow.
Tarpaulin
Strong waterproof material.
State troopers
US police whose authority is confined to the state in which they are based.
Peruvian rainforest
Forest which covers 60% of Peru and is valued for its great biodiversity.
Collarbone
The long bone (also known as the clavicle) which connects your shoulder blades to your breastbone.
Crevasse
A deep open crack in a glacier or sheet of ice.

Subjects

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